PROXIMITY – Pursuing Our Context In A Smaller Way

April 1, 2024

Proximity.

It’s not a word we throw out often in everyday speech. I don’t remember once telling my son at the grocery store, “Go in proximity to the bread aisle and pick us a winner.”

Nonetheless, it’s an important word. It holds within itself the movement Jesus teaches and models when it comes to the “living as sent” identity he invites us to (John 17:18). At its essence is also the difference between a big-box brand of attractional church and a church-on-mission looking to engage the culture it’s uniquely planted within.

In the story of the Samaritan (Luke 10), something fascinating happens. An “expert” of the religious law has it high on his priority list to win a war of words with Jesus. In a posture of justifying himself and verbally trapping Jesus, he exposes some deep inner wounds. His first question is about a true LIFE he may be able to recite but has never really felt. It is interesting that a religious elite, with all his training, experience, answers, and privilege, still does not understand why all his efforts fall short in his soul’s search for a fulfilled LIFE. When he asks his second question — “Who is my neighbor?” — Jesus’ answer is a key to a hidden treasure. 

“He saw, had compassion, and moved toward

He tells the story of the unlikeliest of heroes, a Samaritan, who did what the respected priest and Levite avoided. Luke 10:33 is worth a highlighter. It reads, “He saw, had compassion, and moved toward” the broken man. Those three words embody a PROXIMITY process we so often neglect. The people and systems of our broken neighborhoods limp through hopeless pursuits, begging for LIFE answers. I propose Jesus’ answer to the expert could also apply as an answer to us today.

What Jesus taught through the Samaritan story, he also lived out. One of many beautiful examples unfolds in John 9 when Jesus heals a blind man. The first sentence reads, “He saw a man blind from birth.” His seeing was unique. The blind man was seasoned at being overlooked and undervalued. It was his normal. But Jesus was different, seeing beyond his fractured past and into his restored future. Then Jesus displays gospel-induced compassion as he goes towards him. Now, don’t miss that Jesus has already healed many with a distant word. He could have done it here, too, but he didn’t. Verse six tells us he “anointed the man’s eyes” with the mud-pie spit concoction he made. And that word … anointed, it’s a compassion word. It’s a word that requires time and the right touch. He genuinely loves the man despite how the world relates to him. But then the story gets weird.

For that broken man, the lie of loneliness should have evaporated with his newfound sight. But from the religious leaders to his own family, he was disowned. He was rejected. He was alone yet again. We then read one of the most tender sentences of the New Testament. “Jesus heard that they had cast him out and, having found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’” (John 9:35). Jesus knew the only thing worse than a broken body is a broken spirit, so he moved toward him. He actually went after him. He displayed proximity like he does again and again through the Gospels. 

So What?

With an honest and humble heart, I repeat, “So what?” What does that mean for the church in 2024?

After two decades of leading in a mega-church context, I think the answer is micro-movements. I say this without any resentment toward a particular church. Many big churches are a part of disciplemaking movements that change the hearts and souls of their city. I think the problem is our American love for supersizing things. Any place that has to expand to fit more folks loses something. Jesus’ ministry, which he continues to reiterate to his followers (and to us), teaches the value and necessity of proximity.

There is something fundamentally wrong with an attractional model simply because it expects a non-believer to leave their comfort zone and enter yours. In that way, they are the ones expected to be more missionary minded! Should it be that not-yet-believers would be expected to do the courageous work of GO-ing? This is backward.

It’s why I’ve cherished, over these past few life-altering years, fully embodying the microchurch mindset. At its core, each microchurch is a worshiping community on mission. It is the ecclesiological minimum that the early church of Acts so potently embodied. Whether it is called microchurch, missional community, or some creative synonym of “small” group, there is a hope that smaller is better. Yet fundamental to the fullness of potential are the tangible expressions of mission, worship, and community. 

If your context is anything like ours, imbalance is always a threat. Perhaps that is what John meant when he clarified Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17. 

He prays: 

I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:15-17) 

As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. (John 17:18)

It is our tendency, but not God’s plan, for us to drift either OUT or OF the world.

OUT happens when a small group is more about “our” needs than anything else. This is most likely to occur when a group consists primarily of a select group of friends or a specific type of study that keeps certain people in and others out. If you wonder if this expression could be your group, the litmus test comes when an angry atheist, or even a well-meaning Muslim, walks through the door.

When you lose the mission of proximity, you, in turn, lose the potential for all three values: Worship, community, or mission.

OF swings the pendulum the other way. When a community on mission begins to look and act like the world, something is amiss. There is a standard we must maintain if we are to remain a light in a dark place. All too often, a group of people gets more excited about social justice projects or lingers in shallow, gospel-less relationships. It becomes OF when it loses its aim of full truth-centered restoration (2 Cor. 13:11, ESV). 

Jesus’ purpose is to recenter our microchurches to live as sent. It even comes with the nudge of sanctification that God’s word brings, which will shape you and correct your aim.

That is the kind of missional thinking that would change you, change your city, and change the world.

To close and encourage you along this long, beautiful journey, begin by writing the three words (mission, worship, community) on a whiteboard. As a community, come up with a practical strategy for each. Let leaders emerge who have a unique passion for each work together as an empowered team. Summarize those answers into a sentence that gives your microchurch a direction. Then pause in gratitude to consider how far you have already come in the proximity journey, and humbly pray for the courage to continue the marathon. 

When the opportunity presents itself to meet with a group to equip them with this proximity mindset, I typically begin by bringing a paper map of their city. With a red marker, I ask them to begin marking where microchurches with an articulated missional aim exist. When the marker gets set down, we pause long enough to pray with hope. What if, instead of building a central location where we can continue the expansion through addition, a map like this would help multiply missionaries gathered in worshiping communities across the city? What if every person had access to a Jesus follower where they lived, worked, or played? That is the kind of missional thinking that would change you, change your city, and change the world.

Matt Newman

Matt Newman

Matt Newman and his family made the major life pivot moving from the “big church” model to a local, missional, microchurch model three years ago with Samaritan Church of microchurches. Its restoration aim is to bring good to the hood by releasing the church to live and love like Jesus. You can read more of their story in their recent book Good in the Hood - Following Jesus to the Places He Said He Was Going.
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